How to Disappear

I would like to bring to the table an ethical situation concerning one’s right to privacy and confidentiality with their librarian, and what is right and good for the community.

I was recently working the reference desk at my public library, and was approached by a middle aged man.  “Yeah, I was wondering if you guys had any books about how to speak Brazil.”

“Oh, would you like some books or CDs on learning Portuguese?” I responded.

“No, I want to learn how to speak Brazil,” he said abrasively.

“Oh, well sir, they actually speak Portuguese in Brazil. Here let me show you to the section where we have some learning materials on the Portuguese language.”

So I showed him over to the section, and let him select the materials that he wanted. Shortly thereafter, he returned to the reference desk.

“So, I was also wondering if you had any books on how to disappear. Not like the magician’s kind of way of disappearing. But like if I wanted to disappear where no one could ever find me.”

Now it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what was going on in this situation, and here is where the ethical situation arises.  This man could have committed a crime that he is trying to run from, and the authorities could be looking for him. This man could quite possibly be a risk to the community. But then again, these are all “could” statements. I, as his librarian, am obligated to reserve his right to privacy, and help him find whatever materials he requests…right? So I did what I thought was best, and was loyal to my profession, and found him the most suitable books for his request on “how to disappear.” I was actually astounded that there were books on this topic, but low and behold, the man received what he came to the library for.

We as librarians are going to face an array of difficult ethical situations throughout our careers, but with policies such as ALA in place, at least we have some sense of guidance in doing what we think is right.


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8 Responses to How to Disappear

  1. I found this a very compelling topic. There is a question of where to draw the line within the profession. It made me think, if a librarian helps a patron find information on a topic and that patron ends up doing harm with that information, is the librarian at all libel? Of course not, not if the librarian has no explicit knowledge of what is going on. In this case the man may be wanting to “disappear”for numerous reasons, not all of them ominous. In such an ambiguous situation the librarian must follow the ethical rights of privacy. If such a person declared bad intentions, e.g. “I’m looking up information on bomb-building so that I can blow up a building down town,” then that right to privacy should be forfeit. It is definitely a tricky situation.

    • The first response written above was by Lucie B

      • J.A.Lee says:

        The first thing that comes to mind reading this story is: How is a man going to disappear if he doesn’t know the country’s language he plans to escape to or have the ability to search for books about “disappearing” on his own. He may not be a good candidate for this activity. Secondly, he could just be looking for research material for a mystery novel he wants to write. Who knows why people search for the things they do? I once had a customer convinced there was a book that tell him how he could change the color of his skin from white to black. Probably the most bizarre question I ever had. I told him to talk to his physician because I really did not think this was going to be something I could help him with. People ask for the oddest things. -J.A.Lee

  2. Your example of the Brazil-bound man is too humorous and the fact there are books about how to “get lost” makes it even better. Whether he was a threat to the community or was just writing an article about the subject, the records regarding what he checked-out are easily accessible. Once the FBI demands the records, they can be found in a matter of seconds. One hundred years ago this was not the case. The patron’s privacy wasn’t as vulnerable because there were no computers, databases and tracking software. There probably weren’t any books about “getting” lost either.

    K. Yockey

    • I’m not so sure about that really. Don’t most libraries erase the records of what a patron has checked out as soon as materials are returned specifically so those records can’t be accessed? I know some give patrons the ability to keep a reading list, but this is something they have to opt into knowing that the information they keep there will be accessible to law enforcement agencies with a warrant.

      – J. Cox

  3. Allie B. says:

    This topic brings to mind questions of how to make library customers/patrons feel comfortable enough to have a reference interview with a librarian. The fact that the man in Jill’s story felt comfortable asking her for help finding these particular materials is is rather surprising, actually. I assume that libraries frequently lose customers and patrons based on the fact that the typical reference interview is done face-to-face. There are certainly topics I’m interested in researching that I might not seek help with given my discomfort with talking directly with a reference librarian. New concepts such as self check-out and online reference forums such as instant messaging are wonderful ideas in terms of enhancing the customer’s sense of privacy and therefore their willingness to seek the information they need. But I do think this will always be a concern, particularly in a public library environment.

  4. I’m a big believer in personal privacy, and Lucie is right. Unless a person freely and willingly declares “I’m going to use this info to blow something up,” etc., librarians have no business speculating, and no business deciding what information people should or shouldn’t be allowed to have. Especially since things like this are freely available on the Internet:

    Besides, even if we decided certain people shouldn’t have certain information, and we decided not to help them, the Internet would make it impossible for one person to actually stop another from getting the info they want.

    Also JA, your patron’s odd request makes me think of the transformation undergone by the writer in Black Like Me. Maybe this is what he was thinking of?

    – J Kolic

  5. This makes me think of some of the issues we were asked to consider in our management courses. The professor gave us one example of a pair of teenagers coming in to ask about books on making bombs to blow up cars. He said that he and his brother (I think) actually did this as kids and received the materials from their librarian. They then went and did blow up a car. Not an occupied or used one, but the world was one car less.

    The librarian couldn’t make the assumption that the boys were really going to blow something up. There are any number of uses for those kinds of materials. I don’t think my imagination can even do it justice. I’ve personally helped patrons find books on everything from blowing up planes to biological warfare. I think the only way a librarian can sanely survive is to assume the best about a person unless it is explicitly proven otherwise. Mind you, I would hate to be the librarian who provided information to a murderer or pyromaniac, but how would you ever know?

    – J. Cox

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